Ohio-Class Submarines — The U.S. Navy Leg of the Nuclear Triad

By Peter Suciu
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Ohio-Class Submarines — The U.S. Navy Leg of the Nuclear Triad

June 15th, 2024

10 minute read

In today’s article, author Peter Suciu examines the Ohio-class of ballistic missile submarines employed by the United States of America as part of its nuclear deterrence policy. Known as the nuclear triad, the three legs of the deterrence are land-based ICBMs, air delivery of nuclear munitions and ocean-based launch platforms. Ohio-class submarines, unofficially known as Boomers, have helped protect the peace for more than 40 years.

USS Florida underway in 1984
The USS Florida (SSBN-728) underway in 1984. The Ohio-class nuclear-powered commissioned in 1983 and was redesignated SSGN-728 during refueling and conversion in 2003. Image: U.S. Navy

First in its class, the United States Navy’s USS Ohio (SSBN-726) was laid down when President Gerald Ford was still in the Oval Office, and subsequently built and launched during the Jimmy Carter administration. However, the nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine became a key component of America’s nuclear triad during President Ronald Reagan’s time in office. 

USS Ohio under construction
The USS Ohio (SSBN-726) under construction in Groton, CT. The Ohio was built by the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics. Image: U.S. Navy

A total of 18 of a planned 24 boats were built — with the final ones entering service in 1997, during the final term of President Bill Clinton. The program was cut short as the Cold War came to an end and strategic threats seemingly evaporated.

Trident missile launch from USS Henry M Jackson
The USS Henry M. Jackson (SSBN-730) launches a Trident missile on December 4, 1984 during a shakedown cruise. Image: Bob Duff/U.S. Navy

Designed during the Cold War, few people expected the great thaw that was to come. Instead, greater emphasis was placed on the role of strategic deterrence — the key role of the SSBN fleet since its inception in 1960.

navigation station on USS Rhode Island
Electronics Technician’s Mate 2nd Class Holmes works a navigational problem on board the USS Rhode Island (SSBN-740) during a patrol in the western Atlantic. Image: Patrick Nugent/U.S. Navy

Though the program was initially met with considerable delays, when the Ohio-class began to enter service in the 1980s — it replaced the older ballistic missile submarines, notably the Benjamin Franklin-class and Lafayette-class — they were the largest nuclear-powered submarines ever built for the United States Navy.

USS Pennsylvania nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine boomer
An aerial starboard bow view of the nuclear-powered submarine USS Pennsylvania (SSBN-735) underway in 1995. Image: Larry Smith/U.S. Navy

Each Ohio-class nuclear submarine was capable of carrying 24 missiles — each with a payload of eight W76 thermonuclear warheads — that could all be launched in a single minute, yet delivered to targets virtually anywhere in the world.

USS Michigan commission ceremony
The crew of the USS Michigan (SSBN-727) await the arrival of the guest speakers and the beginning of the boat’s commissioning ceremony on September 11, 1982. Image: U.S. Navy

In addition, the boats had practically unlimited endurance and could operate at depths that made detection a near impossibility.

Ballistic Missile Submarines for a New Era

At the November 11, 1981 commissioning ceremony, then Vice President George H.W. Bush suggested that the Ohio-class had introduced “a new dimension in our nation’s strategic deterrence.”

USS Alabama completes 100th patrol
A starboard bow view of the USS Alabama (SSBN-731) returning to port after completing the 100th Trident ballistic missile submarine patrol. Image: PH1 Mussi/U.S. Navy

On March 13, 1982, the submarine launched her first Trident 1 training missiles, while the following August, she was loaded with operational missiles. It was on October 1, 1983, that SSBN-726 began her first deterrent patrol. The United States Navy doesn’t disclose where the submarines are deployed, but it was noted that during the final years of the Cold War, eight of the boats operated in the Pacific.

Large and Truly in Charge

Displacing 15,208 tonnes (16,764 tons) on the surface, and 16,969 tonnes (18,750 tons) submerged, until the development of the Soviet Navy’s now-retired Project 941 Akula (NATO reporting name Typhoon), the Ohio-class were the largest submarines ever built — and even today, only the Russian Navy’s Project 955 Borei (NATO reporting name Dolgorukiy) are bigger.

USS Alaska sea trials
The USS Alaska (SSBN-732) underway to the Dabob Bay Range for trials. The Olympic mountain range is in the background. Image: Brian Nokell/U.S. Navy

The Ohio-class subs have a length of 170 meters (560 feet) and a beam of 13 meters (42 feet)

Size wasn’t the only significant difference over the U.S. Navy’s previous ballistic missile submarines.

The Ohio-class SSBNs were designed and built with the latest technology, including the streamlining of the outer hulls, allowing the boats to move with considerable stealth, but also with greatly increased cruising speed.

Nuclear-Powered, Nuclear-Armed

Each of the Ohio-class boats are powered by a GE S8G pressure water nuclear reactor with two turbines, which provide 45 MW (60,000 shp) and a driving shaft that enables the vessels with speeds of 12 knots surfaced and 20+ knots submerged. The boats were further outfitted with a sonar suite that includes the IBM BQQ 6 passive search sonar, Raytheon BQS 13, BQS 15 active and passive high-frequency sonar, and an active Raytheon BQR 19 navigation sonar.

D-5 Trident II submarine launched nuclear missile launched from USS Tennessee near coast of Florida
Off the coast of Florida, a D-5 Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missile heads skyward following its test launch from the USS Tennessee (SSBN-734). Image: PH2 E.E. Crawford/U.S. Navy

Designed as nuclear ballistic submarines (SSBN), the Ohio-class can carry 24 Trident missiles in two rows of 12 — and each of the missiles is able to carry up to a dozen Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicles (MIRVs) with a yield of 100kT. However, the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) limited the number of MIRVS to eight per missile. 

ballast control panel on USS Pennsylvania
The Ballast Control Panel is quite complex. This photo was taken aboard the USS Pennsylvania. Image: Larry Smith/U.S. Navy

Though just 18 Ohio-class subs were built, because each carried the two dozen Tridents compared to the 16 carried by the Lafayette-class, the U.S. Navy was able to replace 31 of the former class boats while providing a vastly superior striking force.

torpedoman checking torpedo tubes of USS Pennsylvania
A torpedoman checks the number two torpedo tube on board the USS Pennsylvania in 1995. Image: U.S. Navy

In addition to the missiles, the Ohio-class submarines are equipped with four 533mm (21-inch) bow torpedo tubes and the then-new Mk 118 digital torpedo fire control systems. 

periscope view of USS Rhode Island observing United States Navy frigate
In October 1996, while on patrol in the western Atlantic, the USS Rhode Island spots a U.S. Navy frigate through its periscope. Image: Patrick Nugent/U.S. Navy

The capabilities of the SSBNs were diminished slightly under provisions of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which called for each Ohio-class submarine to have four of its missile tubes permanently deactivated. As a result, the boats now carry a maximum of 20 Trident II D5 missiles, which provides increased range and accuracy over the now out-of-service Trident I C4 missile.

Two Crews For Each Boat

When on a Strategic Deterrent Patrol, the Ohio-class subs carry a crew of up to 170 — including officers and enlisted sailors — and spend around 70 days at sea, followed by a 25-day maintenance period. Two crews are assigned to each of the boats, with these being designated “Blue” and “Gold,” allowing the submarines to increase their deployments and to average 66 percent of their time at sea. Each crew has their own captain.

sailors at dive station in control room of USS Georgia
Crewmen monitor consoles at their dive stations in the control room of the nuclear-powered fleet ballistic missile submarine USS Georgia. Image: Chuck Fiel/U.S. Navy

According to the U.S. Navy, “This maximizes the SSBN’s strategic availability, reduces the number of submarines required to meet strategic requirements, and allows for proper crew training, readiness, and morale.”

Navy crewman checks Trident nuclear missiles
A crewman checks the internal systems of Trident missiles in the missile diagnostic center aboard the submarine USS Georgia. Image: Chuck Fiel/U.S. Navy

From Ballistic Missile Submarine to Guided-Missile Submarine

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the end of the Cold War, the 1994 Nuclear Posture Review determined that the U.S. required just 14 of its 18 SSBNs, and instead of retiring the four oldest Ohio-class boats, the vessels were converted into land attack and Special Operation Forces (SOF) platforms.

USS Michigan leaving Pearl Harbor Hawaii
The USS Michigan heads out to sea after departing from Naval Station, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Image: OS2 John Bouvia/U.S. Navy

Modifications include modifying 22 of the subs’ 24 missile launch tubes to accommodate the Tomahawk TLAM (land attack) or Tactical Tomahawk cruise missiles. Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems adapted the tubes and developed a multiple all-up round canister that provided storage and launch for up to seven Tomahawks from each tube — with each armed with up to 154 missiles. 

AN-BYG-1 Combat Control System
The AN/BYG-1 Combat Control System is an open-architecture submarine combat system for analyzing and tracking submarine and surface ship contacts. Image: U.S. Navy

The modified submarines were further equipped with the Raytheon AN-BYG-1 Combat Control System. A combination of commercial software with U.S. Navy improvements, Combat Control System gives the submarine the ability to track all sensor data and tactical intelligence to create a more comprehensive tactical picture. Further, it increases the sub’s effectiveness at tracking and engaging submerged and surface targets.

Lt Bryan Tauzer launches Trident II ballistic missile USS Nebraska
Lt. Bryan Tauzer squeezes the trigger, launching a Trident II fleet ballistic missile from the USS Nebraska (SSBN-739) during tests off Cape Canaveral, Florida. Image: J02 Kevin Stephens/U.S. Navy

USS Ohio began the conversion in November 2002 and rejoined the fleet as SSGN-726 in January 2006, following her sea trials. The other converted Ohio-class boats include USS Michigan (SSGN-727), USS Florida (SSGN-728), and USS Georgia (SSGN-729), with the latter vessel completing the conversion in December 2007.

Clandestine Operations

On the new cruise-missile submarines, the two launch tubes not used for Tomahawk missiles were converted to diving chambers (also called lockout chambers.) United States Navy SEALs and other special operations forces (SOF) can use these to deploy from a submerged submarine with their military equipment for a variety of missions. 

The subs have the capacity to host up to 66 SOF personnel at a time.

Navy SEAL Delivery Vehicle
A U.S. Navy diver and special operator from SEAL Delivery Team 2 perform SDV operations with the nuclear-powered guided-missile submarine USS Florida. Image: Andrew McKaskle/U.S. Navy

SEALs can deploy from the submarine’s diving chambers with a SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV) kept on the submarine’s dry deck shelter. SDVs are underwater vehicles that can deliver swimmers and their gear in a clandestine method.

US Navy SEAL enters SDV from submarine
A U.S. Navy member of SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team 2 (SDVT-2) climbs aboard one of the team’s SEAL Delivery Vehicles (SDV) Mk VIII from a submarine during training in 2005. Image: PHC Andrew Mckaskle

An improved underwater system — the Advanced SEAL Delivery System (ASDS) developed by Northrop Grumman was canceled due to cost overruns. The ASDS was to be a midget submarine with a dry compartment. The sole prototype was lost in a 2008 fire.

Invisible Until Politics Dictates Otherwise

Throughout the Cold War, the locations of the Ohio-class submarines were closely guarded secrets. To work as a nuclear deterrent, the Soviet Union could not know where they were, lest they devise a war plan to remove them from the field before they could launch their nuclear missiles. 

USS Rhode Island departs New London CT
The USS Rhode Island underway for builder’s trails off the New England coast. A replica of John Paul Jones’s Continental sloop of war Providence provides an honorary escort. Image: PH1 Roers/U.S. Navy

However, politics sometimes intervenes and the decision is made to place a submarine on display in an effort to project power. The concept is to remind the enemy that the United States still carries a proverbial “big stick.”

USS Maine near Puerto Rico
The U.S. Navy’s nuclear ballistic submarine USS Maine (SSBN-741) conducts surface navigational operations near Puerto Rico. Image: Ph1 Michael J. Rinaldi/U.S. Navy

In November 2023, the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) released a photo of one of its Ohio-class guided-missile submarines transiting the Suez Canal, en route to the Red Sea. That submarine has been employed in strikes on Houthi positions in Yemen, with the first occurring in early January 2024.

List of Ohio-Class Submarines

Here is a complete list of Ohio-class submarines in service.

Submarine NameHull NumberCommissioned
USS OhioSSGN-726November 11, 1981
USS MichiganSSGN-727September 11, 1982
USS FloridaSSGN-728June 18, 1983
USS GeorgiaSSGN-729February 11, 1984
USS Henry M. JacksonSSBN-730October 6, 1984
USS AlabamaSSBN-731May 25, 1985
USS AlaskaSSBN-732January 25, 1986
USS NevadaSSBN-733August 16, 1986
USS TennesseeSSBN-734December 17, 1988
USS PennsylvaniaSSBN-735September 9, 1989
USS West VirginiaSSBN-736October 20, 1990
USS KentuckySSBN-737July 13, 1991
USS MarylandSSBN-738June 13, 1992
USS NebraskaSSBN-739July 10, 1993
USS Rhode IslandSSBN-740July 9, 1994
USS MaineSSBN-741July 29, 1995
USS WyomingSSBN-742July 13, 1996
USS LouisianaSSBN-743September 6, 1997

The Ohio-class in Pop Culture

The U.S. Navy’s SSBNs have made numerous appearances in popular culture, and that includes the USS Maine (SSBN-741) appearing in the 1991 Tom Clancy novel The Sum of All Fears

USS Alabama Point Loma California
The USS Alabama passes Cabrillo National Monument as it heads for the Naval Submarine Base Point Loma, California in September 2000. Image: PH1 Mark A. Correa/U.S. Navy

The USS Alabama (SSBN-731) was the setting for the 1995 film Crimson Tide, which starred Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman. However, due to numerous elements of the plot — notably the mutiny on the boat — the film had to be produced without any assistance from the U.S. Navy. That included footage of the submarine submerging.

sailor on tug boat throws line to sailors on USS Alabama
A sailor aboard a tug tosses a rope to waiting line handlers on the deck of the USS Alabama in 1988. Image: PH1 Chuck Mussi/U.S. Navy

However, the production company found that there was no law against filming U.S. vessels — and by coincidence, the film crew was able to track the real USS Alabama as she departed Pearl Harbor by both boat and helicopter, and filmed the sub until she submerged. That and other footage from Crimson Tide was reused in other films, including Time Under Fire, On The Beach, and Danger Beneath the Sea.

sailors walk along top os USS Alabama along vertical launching system
A crewman climbs through a hatch onto the deck of the USS Alabama. The vertical launch tubes can be seen in the deck. Image: PH1 Chuck Mussi/U.S. Navy

The fictional Ohio-class submarine USS Montana was featured in the 1989 film The Abyss, while the equally fictional USS Colorado (SSBN-753) served as one of the settings and key plot points in the 2013 ABC TV series Last Resort.

End of the Line Coming Soon

The U.S. Navy’s future Columbia-class submarines will begin to finally replace the aging Ohio-class by the end of the decade — although the program is already running behind schedule. Construction began on the lead vessel, the future USS District of Columbia (SSBN-826), in October 2020, and the current plan calls for a dozen of the new SSBNs to fill the role of the 14 Ohio-class SSBNs now in service. 

USS Henry M Jackson enters Pearl Harbor 1989
The USS Henry M. Jackson heads into Naval Station, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in 1989. Image: OS2 Bouvia/U.S. Navy

However, the legacy of the Ohio-class will live on. They truly were a new dimension in our nation’s strategic deterrence.

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Peter Suciu

Peter Suciu

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based freelance writer who regularly covers military history and hardware for The National Interest and FoxNews. He has collected military small arms and headgear since he was 12 years old. His most recent book A Gallery of Military Headdress was released last year and is available from Amazon.com here.

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